It felt like one of the formative moments in world rugby. In the blink of an eye, with a twinkle of his toes, the Fiji wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca gathers the ball deep in his own half, skins the massive and mobile Aurélien Rougerie, then takes the perfect trajectory to cut inside the full-back Nicolas Brusque. In a flash, Fiji are back in the game.
On October 11, 2003, Caucau made an impact totally out of proportion to the single game he had played. In that 70 minutes against France he produced the try of the tournament as well as a citing for an incident in which he punched French flanker Olivier Magne to earn a yellow card.
In his punditry for The Guardian, former France full-back Thomas Castaignède described Caucau’s indiscretion against Magne as the tournament’s most unforgivable moment – not as a judgment of Caucau’s misdemeanour, but as a lament of a citation that would rob the tournament of its most exciting player for two games.
Discovered only four years previously while playing sevens for a police team, Caucau had been the object of a bitter tug-of-war between Fiji and the All Blacks. His gargantuan frame, the pace at which it was propelled, and his seizure of the world’s biggest made comparisons to Jonah Lomu inevitable. Above all, there was the sense that both brought innate physiological gifts to the sport.
In the manner of Lomu in 1995, or Michael Owen in 1998, Caucau had seized hold of a World Cup and left the world aghast. For the first half of his second game, Scotland’s play was visibly influenced by the mere knowledge of his presence on the same field. After only ten minutes, he was through Glenn Metcalfe and rounded a despairing Kenny Logan to score the first try. The world watched for a new idol.
The promise was never fulfilled; on and off the field, Caucau proved one of the most elusive and frustrating characters in the game. He was a nightmare to pin down – not only for opposing players, but also for the press and his own federation. Free spirit, absences, recreational drugs, and weight issues became more problematic, the expectant world watching with the familiar dread reserved for watching talent go to waste.
Just before the World Cup, and just after his wedding to his childhood sweetheart, his most dramatic disappearance occurred. He was soon located – having returned to his tiny village of Navakasiga with a portable generator and video machine to show his friends and family videos of his games for the Auckland Blues.
Having retired from international rugby, reversed that retirement, and fallen out of favour once again, Caucau, 33, plies his trade for Northland in New Zealand. With reports that he’s now at 103kg and toned, a renaissance could yet be on the cards.
Here are some of the Fijian’s career highlights:
Jack Leahy, Pundit Arena.